Friendship in School-Age Boys With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Meta-Analytic Summary and Developmental, Process-Based Model

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Friendship-making is considered a well-established domain of deficit for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), with this population sometimes described as incapable of making friends. However, the majority of children with ASD indicate a desire for friends, and many report having friends. To what degree, then, do youth with ASD succeed in achieving friendships with peers? If and when they do succeed, by what means do these friendships emerge relative to models of typically developing (TD) youths’ friendships? To address these questions, we first meta-analyzed the descriptive friendship literature (peer-reported sociometrics, self-report, parent-report) among school-age boys with ASD. Using random effects models, we found that youth with ASD do make friends according to peers and parents (Hedges’s g > 2.84). However, self-reported friendship quality (Hedges’s g = −1.09) and parent- and peer-reported quantity (Hedges’s g < −0.63) were poorer than TD peers. We consider these findings in light of 2 conceptual frameworks for understanding social deficits in ASD (social cognition and social motivation theory) and in view of a leading model of friendship in TD youth (Hartup & Stevens, 1997). We then present a model that synthesizes these domains through the construct of social information processing speed, and thereby present the first developmental, process-based model of friendship development among youth with ASD.

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